Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Bear and The Marriage Proposal

Kampala Amateur Dramatic Society's next production will be a dinner theatre production in late October at the Open House restaurant on Buganda Road in Kampala.

In the absence of other offers, I will be directing two short Chekhov (pictured) plays - a pre- and post-prandial celebration of two of the master playwright's less distinguished but very funny plays. First is The Bear - in which a youthful and passionate widow encounters an angry and overbearing (pardon the pun) gentleman creditor, with unexpected consequences. The Bear will be followed by The Marriage Proposal - in which a hypochondriac suitor gets into furious dispute with the object of his affections. Between the two, we will have an excellent South Indian buffet dinner.
I'm looking forward to it (in theory), though it will really depend on finding a good and congenial cast. Auditions in a fortnight's time. Watch this space for more updates.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's all about water

There is famine in the land of plenty. In parts of Eastern Uganda, crops have failed and people are now starving. In Uganda, the main problem is related to low incomes, inefficient markets and weak food storage and distribution systems. Food supplies at a country level are still more than adequate: indeed, Uganda is a net exporter of food to neighbouring countries, especially to Kenya and, increasingly, to south Sudan.

Across the border in Kenya, however, the situation is worse: the Prime Minister recently estimated a likely maize deficit of up to 1 million tonnes (about 30% of Kenya's annual demand for its core staple). Why? In short, the major factor is shortage of water. The rivers around Mt Kenya are drying up. Lake Naivasha (always vulnerable) is shrinking fast as a result of low replenishment and, critically, abstraction for irrigation for the flower farms which now encircle the lake. The main Nairobi water source near Thika is at a historically low level. And in the North, rains have failed (see picture above).

About 10 years ago when I was based at Njombe in southern Tanzania, Ronnie Cox, a CDC stalwart, told me that in his opinion access to water would be the next big problem for Africa. Ronnie had spent many years in Southern Africa (in particular Zimbabwe, where annual rainfall is concentrated in a 4-5 month burst between November and March, and where dams and irrigation schemes were a sine qua non for commercial farmers). He found East Africa's dependence on rainfed agriculture astonishing - along with the apparent disregard for basic water management systems - in particular the lack of attention to enforcement of the prohibition on stream bed cultivation. He might also have observed the lack of simple water harvesting techniques: it is still unusual to find gutters and rain water storage tanks in most houses (though this simple rainwater conservation method is now on the increase, at least for middle and high-earning households).

Mind you, East Africa, for all its problems, is for the most part blessed with healthy annual rainfall. Here's an extract from a rather bleak article by Bob Williamson entitled Peak Water:-

When will "Peak Water" hit--or has it already peaked while going mostly unnoticed? Fossil water reserves built up in ancient underground aquifers will run dry, we are being told. In fifteen of some of the world's most populous nations, it is already underway. In the United States the vast Ogallala aquifer was being overexploited. Under the North China Plain and in Saudi Arabia, unsustainable depletion is well underway. Over-pumping of aquifers is happening in Iran, Israel and Jordan, India and Pakistan, Mexico, Morocco and Spain, Tunisia and Syria, in the Yemen and South Korea.

We must ask; when will the water refugees start to migrate? When will the citizens of the cities' toilets and showers run dry? Which water domino will fall first? Is this lifeblood supply of water to be stopped for agriculture and irrigation, allowing it to wilt and die? Will our tap be turned off for the industrial model we have built our economic lives around? Will we feed ourselves or the machines of industry? Lake Chad, once viewed by astronauts from space, no longer appears in their windows, shrinking some 95 percent since 1960. Will it one day need renaming just like the "Snows of Kilimanjaro" or the Glacier National Park in the United States will? The world is incurring not only an economic, but also a water deficit. This deficit unlike an economic one is unable to be resolved by increased productivity, longer working hours, or more capital investment; this is a global threat to sustainable GDP for the developed and developing industrial economies. The economic powerhouse of the largest and strongest is in trouble.

Not just the largest and strongest. As always, the economically weaker nations will almost certainly struggle more as a result of water resource depletion.

There's an interesting (and under-reported) meeting taking place at the moment among the 10 countries covered by the Nile Basin treaty. This treaty - which was drawn up by the British in 1929 - governs Nile water consumption in the region. For obvious reasons, it is of critical importance to Sudan and Egypt - the major consumers of water originating around Lake Victoria and the Ethiopian plateau - and for which the waters of the Nile are, in effect, the source of life. Essentially this Treaty requires member nations to gain approval from Egypt prior to the utilisation of sources of Nile waters - a condition which has come under fierce debate in recent years - especially by Kenya, hardly surprising in the context of Kenya's current shrinking water supply.

One thing's for sure: water is going to become a bigger and bigger issue on the world stage. In a way this is a good thing: our leaders will need to think more and devote more attention and resource to the basic needs of water and food supply - and in turn our most critical resource - the farmer.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A forgotten crime against humanity

Counterfeits, forgeries, illegal copies, fakes are mostly associated (at least in high income countries) with prestigious brands. For some, it has become a bit of a joke. Recently returned visitors to South East Asia, in particular, return, brandishing their fake Rolexes, Lacoste shirts and pirate DVDs with a degree of pride. "Look what I got - all this for $50..." A couple of years ago, I took the editor of ACCA's members' magazine, Accounting & Business, to task about an ill-judged travel article telling readers whereabouts in Bangkok (or Phnom Penh, I can't remember) was the best place to buy pirate copies and designer fakes..... only to be informed that it wasn't intended to be taken seriously, with an implicit suggestion that I was really being a bit of a sanctimonious killjoy.

In fact, it is a massively important and serious issue, especially in developing countries, where forgeries and fakes are not restricted to high-end discretionary expenditure, but cascade down to basic essentials, like seeds, crop protection products, medicines and cement. Here in Uganda, the press report that bags of cement are opened, adulterated with sand, and repackaged for sale to the unsuspecting public. Regrettably, it's become a fairly regular occurrence to hear of new buildings collapsing in Uganda, often with considerable loss of life. Likewise, we periodically hear of chalk dust, sugar and salt being marketed as antibiotics and of children's vaccines being adulterated - all to make a fast buck heedless of the long term consequences on individuals.

One of AAC's investees - Lachlan Kenya, a distributor of crop protection products - has frequently drawn my attention to the risk of counterfeiting in the Kenyan market. Lachlan addresses this risk by using special packaging (including holograms) and trying to educate its distributors, stockists and end-customers on the risks of using counterfeit products. But it's a difficult task, staying ahead of the counterfeiters, requiring annual investment in new packaging. In a recent conversation with the business, one representative estimated - to my astonishment - that more than 50% of crop protection products in Uganda were fake. Separately, one of our seed company investees in Uganda, NASECO, has reported that considerable quantities of seed products in the Ugandan market are actually no more than grain, dyed red to appear as if it has been treated with fungicides. From a business point of view, the existence of fake product is bad enough (as it affects confidence in the industry as a whole), but when fake product is packaged and sold in fake NASECO bags, it is potentially disastrous for the individual business.

The press assures us that the Ugandan Bureau of Standards is stepping up its activities against counterfeiting. This is good news (provided it is resourced adequately to carry out its quality inspections across the country - which I very much doubt) but much more needs to be done. In particular, purveyors of fake products must be brought to justice and punished severely. My view is that counterfeiting basic products like cement and agricultural inputs (and babymilk, as in the infamous melamine scandal) is tantamount to a crime against humanity: it is (in some cases) deadly, it is indiscriminate and it requires considerable planning and preparation. Left unchecked, counterfeiting destroys businesses, markets, industries and, in its worst form, lives.

At least in this regard, I don't mind being a sanctimonious killjoy.

Monday, July 13, 2009


It's been a while since my last posting. A fortnight's holiday in England, followed by a frantic week trying to catch up with actions, correspondence, meetings and office minutiae, has taken its toll on blogging, not to mention the colossal amount of time simply spent on getting from A to B - whether from the idyll of our converted barn in Lower Loxhore to the beach at Mortehoe in North Devon - or the hellish gridlock of Nairobi rush hour traffic from Westlands to the Norfolk Hotel.

While sitting in a motionless Mitsubishi taxi in Nairobi last week, a friend texted me from Kampala. In my reply, I bemoaned the fact that motorised boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis), ubiquitous in Kampala, are absent in Nairobi. Doubtless there are excellent health and safety reasons for their absence, but the fact is that motorcycles are undoubtedly the best method for travelling short distances in over-crowded cities with poor and/or outmoded transport infrastructure. Kampala traffic, bad at the best of times, would simply grind to a halt without the boda-boda, and the same could be said of many Asian cities (Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam springs to mind) and other African destinations (Ouagaodougou in Burkina Faso) where two wheels predominate over four.
Boda-bodas are, frequently, a source of mingled amusement and wonder. It isn't unusual to see three passengers plus the driver on a boda-boda, the driver over-revving its puny engine to get up the smallest incline. Kampala ladies, out of modesty, ride side-saddle - at least when they are wearing skirts. They are often used to transport substantial objects - this morning I followed a boda-boda with a single bed frame balanced precariously between the driver and the passenger.
Boda-bodas enjoy a mixed reputation in Kampala: most residents claim to dislike them, yet their numbers increase almost daily. Every now and again the police try to regulate them - most recently through a compulsory helmet-wearing (interestingly this only applied to the driver, not the passenger) programme, or through licencing arrangements, but these initiatives tend to die out after a week or two. Further, boda-boda drivers tend to regard themselves as being above normal traffic laws. The blithe arrogance with which customary traffic rules are broken is attributed to Presidential patronage. A few years ago, President Museveni, impatient at being stuck in Kampala city traffic, and late for at least one appointment, is said to have jumped out of his presidential vehicle, hailed a boda-boda driver, and sped through the traffic. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but it makes a good story and (at least in part) accounts for the high standing the Ugandan President enjoys among the boda-boda fraternity.

As I continued this idle line of thought in my still-motionless Nairobi taxi, I wondered why some cities have adopted the motorcycle and others haven't. They are unsuited to cold countries, for obvious reasons, but why, for example, has the boda-boda become so established in Kampala when it is virtually absent from Dar es Salaam and Khartoum - both cities increasingly blighted by weight of traffic. I suppose it has something to do with regulation, but I can't help agreeing with my friend at AGRA in Nairobi, Joe de Vries, that sheer volume of traffic will make four wheels the old transport paradigm in developing-country cities in the years to come. Two wheels is the future!
As a postscript, our Mitsubishi taxi did eventually make it through the Nairobi traffic, but to use another Kampala expression, even travelling by "Footsubishi" would have been a great deal quicker. Bring on the boda-boda!